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all you had to do was stay

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You think your name is Gregory. That's what you tell him. He doesn't laugh at you for hesitating.

"I'm probably Sean," he says, offering you a hand, and you shake it, still feeling dazed. It's weird, how much he looks like you -- or like you will look someday, in thirty years or so. He carries his age well.

"What happened?" you ask, but he turns away and walks into the darkness. After a moment, you follow.

You remember exactly what happened. It's your name that seems like it got lost along the way.

*

You meet her by chance. You think. You are at the bar with some friends when a woman trips and falls into your arms. You catch her. She twists her head around and smiles at you. Her eyes are so blue that you almost don't hear her make her apologies and excuses. She broke a heel dancing, and you saved her from breaking her ankle, she says.

You don't even know what you said to her; it can't be much. Your name, something that must have made her laugh, because you'll hear that laugh again in your dreams. Then she's gone, rushing to the bathroom with a female friend on each arm, supporting her like she twisted her foot after all.

You ask fifteen different people standing nearby what her name is. They look at you like you're an idiot. You sit down on a bar stool and watch the bathroom door, but eventually your friends come to find you. You don't see her for the rest of the night, and your friends tease you about wanting a knighthood for rescuing her, sharing the stupid jokes you always tell each other when you're miserably single. You aren't -- miserable, that is, but you are single. You have a decent job you don't hate and an apartment on the third floor. Your life is pretty good, even without romance in it.

But you can't quit thinking about her laugh.

*

Three days later, she texts you: I'm the girl from the bar. You think Beckett is playing a joke on you; your sister can be a real jerk sometimes. You ask her how she got your phone number, and she tells you that she asked a mutual friend. You call your friends up one by one, not caring how late it is, but they swear they have nothing to do with this. She sends you another text.

(555) 636-2322 Unknown 10:16PM
I just had to find you.

She texts you like she is writing you a letter, with capitals and punctuation and no abbreviations. You find it endearing. You want to believe she's real.

She gives you her name, and you Google it automatically, because of course. What you find stops you in your tracks. You stay up until 2:30AM reading about her. She is famous, rich and popular although she doesn't sing, act, or model. She goes to movie premieres and grand openings, and there was absolutely no reason for her to be in a dive bar with you on a random Thursday night. She has thousands of Instagram followers.

It's her. There's no mistaking her eyes.

(555) 636-2322 Taylor 4:55AM
Up too early this morning. How are you?

You find the message, and the attached picture, on your phone when you wake up in the morning, your neck aching from falling asleep at your desk.

The photos on her Instagram are all perfect -- her lipstick is never smudged, always classic red and bright. She seems to make a game out of it -- no matter how much the paparazzi follows her, they never get an embarrassing shot. This photo is different. She isn't wearing eyeliner and her tank top is slipping off her shoulder. Her hair is sticking up a little in the back. Her nose is scrunched up a little.

You can get five hundred bucks for that picture, if you try a little. Perez would pay it in a second. TMZ might give you more.

You save the photo in a folder on your phone, and put that folder in another folder, and you put a password on it, just in case.

(555) 615-9080 Greg 6:19AM
feeling good. cute pic

(555) 636-2322 Taylor 6:22AM
Oh my gosh, thank you!

You hum to yourself as you dash around the apartment, looking for a clean shirt.

*

That's how it starts, but the intensity only increases. You text every day. She sends you tons of photos, although most of them aren't of her; she takes pictures of her cat and her breakfast and funny road signs. She is sweet and funny and you don't understand why she picked you, but you aren't going to complain.

She travels a lot -- you see a lot of airplane sunrises. But whenever she's in town, she always swings by to see you. You go to Target or to McDonald's or to tiny bars, and somehow no one seems to recognize her in your old shirts and a ballcap. Your friends don't believe you're dating her, and you don't have any proof except that picture, but you can't show them that. It's yours.

Everything is perfect. You mostly quit hanging out with your friends when they won't quit ribbing you about her, because she deserves better than that. She Skypes you from L.A. and reads you a poem she wrote about a bluebird, giggling. Who cares about your friends?

You buy her a toothbrush long before she ever stays the night, and you have guest towels now, because yours are old and gross. You keep the place clean. Your coworkers tell you that they like your new attitude -- you're always happy and helpful. You think you're falling in love.

She comes over late on a Friday and when you look in her eyes you can tell what she wants. You bought a new box of condoms last week, and you fumble one out of the package, and then your cell phone starts ringing. You stare at it in disbelief.

"It's late," she says. "You should answer that. It might be an emergency."

She leans up and kisses your neck, making the hair stand on end, and then she slips out from under the frame of your arms somehow and answers the phone for you. She doesn't say anything into the mouthpiece, just hands it to you.

"Uh, hi?" you say, and reluctantly step into the living room, because you don't want to associate your mother with what you've been doing in your bedroom. You stand in the living room as she tells you that your uncle has died and that you need to come home because the funeral is on Friday. You nod, and then you say, "Uh huh," when she asks if you're listening.

When you hang up, you drop the phone and go back into the bedroom. To your disappointment, Taylor's standing there looking out the window in her beautiful white dress, ignoring your bed entirely.

"Sorry," you say.

She turns toward you, the dress glowing in the moonlight, and she smiles. Her lips are so very red.

"I think you need a new phone," she says, and you cross the room, leaning down to kiss her deeply. She puts her hands on your shoulders and pushes down. Confused, you go with it, sliding down onto your knees. She lifts her dress. You lean forward, and her hands wrap around the back of your head, pushing you into her body. You do as you're told.

She doesn't make any noise at all when she comes, and you groan with pleasure when you feel her body shake beside you. You glance up at her face and see it bathed in blue-white light.

She's texting.

She looks down at you and smiles, but the expression doesn't reach her eyes.

"I have to go," she says, and she leaves you to masturbate furiously in your bed alone.

*

She doesn't text you for four days. You stay cool at first, only sending her a couple messages, just letting her know that you're thinking about her, and that she'd probably like this music video. No answer. You keep texting, not caring how desperate it seems. You can't sleep, staring at your phone and willing it to beep with a notification. Nothing. You call in sick from work on the fourth day and just stare at your ceiling.

Your doorbell rings around two o'clock and when you don't answer, you hear a muffled thump. Eventually you drag yourself out of bed to grab the package.

It contains a brand new iPhone. You don't even think this version is coming out until next week. It's shiny and perfect, and when you put the battery in, you have one text message.

(555) 636-2322 Taylor 04:04PM
Much better, don't you think?

Your hands are shaking.

(555) 918-458-1589 Greg 04:15PM
yes thank you yes

*

You miss the funeral, but no one calls you about it. Your parents probably aren't very happy with you. You send them a message from your old phone before you throw it away. Any garbageman who wants to dig for it is welcome to it. You'll call them later. Probably.

Taylor calls you the next day and asks if you want to go to Florida. It's thirty-two degrees outside, sleeting steadily. You don't hesitate to agree. When you call in the next day, it's from a private beach near the Georgia border. You tell your boss you're still sick. Her head is propped on your thigh and she stifles a giggle as you speak on the phone, deepening your voice and coughing occasionally to sound convincing. She has no tan lines and a silver bracelet on her ankle.

When you hang up she kisses you until you forget about the beach entirely.

"You're a wonderful actor," she says, and the next day at work, you wear long sleeves to cover your sunburn. The warmth on your back from the burn makes you think of her all day long, every time the fabric shifts against your body. It's not a wonder that you don't get too much done.

*

Your relationship is wonderful. Your relationship is awful. You have astonishing weekends watching Netflix with her on your battered couch, and then you spent Tuesday evenings in Barcelona or France. She prefers France. You have no preference.

But then -- you don't understand it. You say something funny and then she's furious. You laugh at her joke and she starts crying. She pushes you down onto the softest bed you've ever been in and you wonder if she's going to smother you with the pillow. When she doesn't, when she kisses you like that, you forget everything she's done, everything you've done to make her mad.

After a couple of weeks you get fired. It hardly registers. Your boss pulls you into her office and starts talking and you just stare at her until she stops talking. You haven't slept in two days and you can still taste yesterday's wine when you burp, which is happening too often.

"Don't bother cleaning out your desk," your boss says, and that's when you understand you've been fired. You leave in a daze. You're curled up on your couch when Taylor lets herself in with the key you gave her. She purses her lips sweetly and coos when you explain and then she says, "Well, you can move in with me!"

You protest; you can't possibly take advantage of her like that. Some part of you might still recognize that this is a terrible idea besides the fact of your pride; she is cruel and unpredictable and you are too much in love with her to say no.

"Just until you get back on your feet," she says, and there's no arguing with her further. She has to go to Milan and you can't come this time; "Girl's night," she says with a wink.

She kisses you once on each cheek like her Italian friends do, and then she disappears. You don't realize until afterwards that she didn't tell you where she lived. You've never been to her place, somehow -- you've been across Europe and she's been all over your apartment, but you've never seen her house.

The next day, she sends a car. A very professional driver informs you that your things will follow, and he opens the car door for you. You get in, and you must fall asleep at some point, because when you wake up you've stopped moving. There is a note pinned to your shirt, and keys in your shirt pocket.

"Welcome home!" the note says in her perfect handwriting. You pull the keys out of your pocket and take a look. There's one big brass key that might be a housekey, and then a key with the emblem that matches the car you're sitting in.

You sit in the backseat until the woozy feeling passes, and then you get out of the car. You're surrounded by what seems like miles of well-manicured lawn. You can't see anyone. The road curves gently ahead. Eventually you get in and start the car.

When you open the door to the mansion, she's there to greet you, grinning, and you let her fall into your arms.

*

"Oh, him?" she says, laughing. "I don't have him on a leash! ...Don't need one."

"Oh, him?" she says. "He's a musician, isn't he adorable?"

You're not a musician, but she's bought you a guitar. You strum the two chords you know and her friends clap.

"Oh, him?" she says. "He's so sweet. He always knows what I want."

You hand her the towel. She doesn't look at you.

Your own things never arrive. She buys you new ones -- crisp white shirts, expensive sunglasses, stuff you'd never pick out yourself, although you have to admit, you do look good. "You match the decor," she says, and she laughs and laughs and laughs.

You love her. You want her to look at you again, just one time, like she did on the night you met, like you're the only person in her world. But when you go out together, somehow the gossip rags never pick up on you. You end up in one photo, just your leg, tagged as 'unknown employee.'

"You're my little secret," she says, nibbling your ear.

But honestly, you too tired to mind. You don't understand it. Sure, you travel a lot now and you've been more active lately, but your bed is so comfortable it's like sleeping on a cloud, and it isn't like you have to get up every day and go to work. You have no obligations except her, and she isn't home all the time. Most of the time, really. You have plenty of time to rest, but you still find yourself yawning across the ridiculous dining room table when she is home.

You dance across the drawing room, you ride bikes through the halls. You have the most ridiculous cape you've ever seen and you love it.

You take a lot of afternoon naps.

*

If you have to guess, you think it started with the painting.

(You're wrong. It started the moment you met, when she picked you.)

She decides to do a portrait of you and works on it for hours. You like sitting for it, except that she insists you keep your eyes open all the time. It seems like a great time to rest. Despite your weakness, she finishes it and hangs it in the great hall next to a long list of nameless men.

"Ancestors," she says when you ask. None of them look like her.

"Do you have portraits of your parents?" you ask, and she says she sent them out to be cleaned.

"I look just like my mother," she tells you, but you'll have to take her word for it.

*

You finally get your Facebook set up on your new phone over a two-week period that she spends in Japan. She doesn't tell you what she's doing, but she comes back with a lot, a lot of clothes. You have forty messages, including several from your mother that your sister has dutifully relayed from her own account. You tell them all not to panic, you've just been busy.

You're trying to convince your old best friend not to call the FBI and report your kidnapping when Taylor snatches the phone out of your hand.

"Who is she?" she insists, and you tell her to look, to check, you were texting a friend, and you're sorry you weren't paying enough attention.

She drops your phone in the fountain, and it just gets worse from there. Anything sets her off. The little things she used to think were cute about you are now infuriating. She cuts holes in all your shirts and she slashes your painting. Suddenly all you can think about doing is escaping, but you can't find your keys. You look for them whenever she's gone, rifling through every unlocked drawer and opening every door. You don't find them.

You find strange things instead: a pigeon beak, matted paintbrushes, insect wings (a whole drawer of shiny beetle wings, glimmering), small handwritten books in other languages with tiny text. Some of it looks really old. You find your old phone, stuffed in the bottom of a garbage bag in the closet in one of the spare bedrooms, but it won't turn on. At least, you think it's yours. There are ten other ones in there, scuffed a bit from regular use, but you recognize the scratch you got on the screen when Taylor's cat decided you weren't paying enough attention to her.

You're so tired, but you can't sleep. You toss and turn and when she's home, she refuses to sleep in the same bed as you, because you can't be still. Her perfect red mouth is drawn up in a moue of disgust, and not a hair is out of place. It's three a.m. You watch her leave.

Your hair starts falling out. She tells you that you're working too hard. You're never hungry. She tells you that you're insulting her cook. You think you're dying.

You must have moved something that she noticed. She pulls a golf club out of the front hall closet and does her very best to destroy your car, the car she gave you. You scream at her. You can't be stuck here forever.

She slams you to the ground and grinds against your hips. Even though you're fully clothed, the stones dig into your back. You shut your eyes and wait until she gets up and walks away.

*

After that, she comes home less and less. She seems only to pop in and make sure you haven't left before running out for another crazy adventure without you. As long as you're on your leash, she's pleased.

You'd like to remember what day, what moment it is when you find the keys, but you lost track of the date a long time ago. Maybe it's Thursday. Doesn't matter. You find the keys splayed across a dead marble counter in the summer kitchen. You know they weren't there before, but you don't care. You don't grab the emergency bag you packed when you decided to leave. You don't wait a second longer.

You're breathing hard when you get outside, holding your breath until the car unlocks. There's a servant at the door, staring at you with dead eyes, and when the car starts, she shuts the door quietly. The car jerks forward, humming under your foot, and you flee, driving all the way down the nightmare driveway toward the open gates.

The moment your car crosses those gates, everything stops.

*

You wake up here, in the dark. No car. No landmarks. It's quiet. It's empty. You sit there without saying anything for a long time, enjoying the silence. Then you hear footsteps, and struggle to your feet.

A man appears out of the darkness, like he's coming out of the fog. He has smile lines and a bit of salt and pepper in his hair. He kind of looks like your father.

"Hello," you say uncertainly, voice rusty.

"Hey," he says, reassuring. "Do you remember your name?"

You have to think about it

(but
you
will
never
forget
hers).